First Photo: Mount Whitney
A Sierra trip with good light and only one case of altitude sickness.
Friday, October 2, 5:30 p.m.
We enter Lone Pine in the early evening. Me, Brian Nix, Jen Paludi and David Yasbek. I’ve been here before, to shoot photos of Mount Whitney, but this is the first time I’ve tried to climb the mountain—the tallest in the contiguous United States. I stared up at it in awe.
A few minutes later, we’re waiting to cross the street when my friend Brian Nix and I notice a light pole moving back and forth. At first I think it’s the wind, but then the ground starts to shake and behind me a roof rattles and a light bulb works its way out of its socket, exploding on the sidewalk below. Earthquake.
Later that evening we meet up with a few of Brian’s fire department friends for dinner in Lone Pine. They’ve just finished the portal trail and inform us that there’s no snow or ice on Whitney-Russell Pass but that it’s very cold and really windy at the top of the mountain. Jen, Brian and I all power down a pile of Mexican food. David orders only a side of French fries.
After dinner we leave the restaurant and drive a few streets down to a dimly lit parking lot to change out of our street clothes and into our hiking gear. I feel like we are preparing for battle, and just at that moment the song “Sgt. MacKenzie” from the movie We Were Soldiers comes out of the Jeep’s speakers. Everybody dons their respective gear and we all run through our packs one last time to make sure that we don’t leave anything crucial behind. We decide to ditch our ice axes.
Jen, Brian, David and I are speeding up the road on our way to the trailhead. David requests some pump-up music and Brian lays down some tracks, including the most overplayed pump-up song of all time, “Eye of the Tiger.” After a few quick miles we reach the trailhead and the crew and I head off under a blanket of white moonlight.
After about 15 minutes we reach the turnoff for the mountaineer’s route where the trail pitches up quite rapidly. This route is not nearly as popular as the portal trail due to its difficulty and exposure. You don’t need rock climbing gear, but if you fall it will hurt. On either side of us are towering cliffs and the route cuts right between them for a few miles.
Several hours of hiking later, Brian tells everyone he needs a short break. All of us take off our packs and sit down on a pile of rocks. I start rummaging in my pack for a bite to eat when I look over and see Brian vomiting up his dinner. Our little break quickly turns into something much more. Brian is showing signs of altitude sickness. He pukes three or four more times, then stands and says, “You guys ready? We should keep on going.” He’s older and has done this sort of thing more times that I have, so I put my pack back on and we keep going toward Iceberg Lake, our stopping point for the night.
We arrive at the lake and spread out to try and find some shelter from the wind, which is gusting at around thirty miles per hour. I find a small group of rocks and call out for the others, then pull out my camera and start shooting some photos. The moon is right between the top of Mount Whitney and the Keeler Needle, making for some nice night landscape photos. For a few minutes, we are all doing something. Jen is laying out the sleeping tarp, David is thumbing through the guidebook, I’m shooting photos and Brian is throwing up—posted up on a rock, head between his knees.
After another rally of three or four pukes Brian starts to make his case that he is feeling much better and is ready to start climbing the East Buttress. This was all part of the original plan. We were going to hike in, then once we arrived at Iceberg Lake, Brian and David were going to start the East Buttress. They would summit, come back down Whitney-Russell Pass, and then start the East Face route. At that point Jen and I would go up the pass and we would all meet up on the summit. It sounded good on paper. After some discussion Brian is talked down and decides that he and David will sleep with us and then at first light they will wake up and start climbing one of the two routes. This creates a dilemma. Because Brian and David thought that they were going to be climbing through the night, they didn’t bring sleeping bags or pads. So now here we are with only two sleeping bags, one and a half sleeping pads, and no tent because it fell victim to “too much weight” for the four of us.
Brian lies down next to Jen and worms his way into her extra small sleeping bag. He’s able to get his legs in the bag but it stops at his elbow so he sleeps in his down jacket. They’re able to pull this move off without much awkwardness. For David and myself, the sleeping situation is a little bit different. I offer to be the big spoon, and the two of us squish ourselves into the sleeping bag. We sleep the entire night on our right hips because that’s the only way that we are able to fit.
I set the alarm on my phone to wake me up at 6:30 a.m. because I want to photograph the alpine glow on the face of Whitney. This means I’m only going to get three hours of sleep, but I’m not going to miss this event. All night, the wind and coldness wake me up, but we’re all experiencing the same thing.
When my alarm finally does go off, it’s piercing. I fumble around in my pack and am able to find my phone, shut off the alarm and grab my camera without leaving the sleeping bag. David is up, running around the campsite trying to warm himself up.
The lack of sleep is worth it. The alpine glow is in full effect and I’m able to get some great images of David standing in front of Mount Whitney. After shooting for ten minutes the glow is gone and the light turns flat and dull. I always find it very interesting just how fast good light can change to flat, crappy light.
By this time Jen and Brian are awake and Brian is talking to David about which climb they are going to attempt. After some discussion they decide to climb the East Face route, which is great for me because it means I’ll be able to photograph them climbing the face from our makeshift camp. We come up with a plan: Brian and David will leave camp first and start climbing. Once Jen and I can see them on a large ramp section of the face, we will leave camp and finish the mountaineer’s route. We figure this will be faster than the climb, so we should all be at the top at roughly the same time. Brian and David head out, and Jen and I go back to sleep.
I wake up sometime later to Brian yelling, “Kyle! Kyle! Hey, Kyle!” and see two small dots on the ramp section of the climb. I quickly switch to my longer lens and try to find them on the face while looking though the viewfinder of my camera. This is not the easiest thing to do because I have to search over 1,800 feet of rock to find two six-foot guys. Eventually I find Brian and David and shoot a few pull-back photos of them working their way up the climb. Later, when I looked back at my original RAW files from this shoot this was the only frame that I shot of David and Brian together approaching the mountain. Once they are out of view Jen and I break down camp and pack up our gear.
Jen and I start up the long shale section of Whitney-Russell Pass. The rock is loose, and it’s also extremely cold with a very strong head wind. About halfway up I try to drink some water out of my CamelBak but it’s frozen solid.
Luckily Jen’s water is still liquid so I snag some of hers. A few hundred feet above us a team of four is making their way down the pass. As they get closer I notice that they are all roped together and clad in full mountaineering gear. This seems like overkill. They’re also kicking loose rocks down toward Jen and me. To get out of the situation Jen and I pick up our pace and scramble above the team.
Two hours later we arrive at the top of the pass. From here we can see directly into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. At this point in the route we have two possible directions to choose from to get to the top of the mountain. Our first option is to walk around to the back side of the mountain and come up to the top from the west. The problem with this route is a thirty-foot shale section. The second choice is five hundred feet of third-class climbing. We decide to go this way. Once we finish the traverse we have one last quick section to the top.
I top out first and see the small weather shelter on top of Mount Whitney. Jen is right behind me and we jump around for a bit, at the view. At that moment both Brian and David come out of the shelter and the whole crew celebrates for about ten seconds and then hustle back to the shelter to try and warm up a bit.
After talking about how each of our climbs went, eating some food and rehydrating, it was time to get off the mountain via the eleven mile long portal trail, which comes up the side of Mount Whitney instead of the more direct mountaineer’s route, which goes up the front of the mountain. It’s very similar to other trails in the High Sierra; you are above the tree line, exposed to wind, stumbling around on large grey stone, and going through countless switchbacks. The trail has over sixty-one hundred feet of elevation loss when going from the top down. During one section of switchback you only drop ten vertical feet for about seventy feet of trail. As the miles pass the sun begins to set and sunglasses are traded for headlamps.
I can see taillights from cars and the faint glow of headlamps from people walking around in the portal parking lot. Nearly done with this photo assignment. My right knee has been hurting, making progress slow. Shortly after eight I limp into the parking lot where Brian, Jen and David are unpacking and getting ready for the car ride home. “Hey, Kyle, how is your knee doing? Think you will be able to drive us home tonight?” asks Brian. “My knee feels like a big guy wacked it with a bat,” I answer.
We pack up the rest of our things and drive out of the portal and into Lone Pine for some dinner, then head home to Oxnard.
I submitted the image of Brian and David a week or so after the trip, and two years later it was picked up for a 3 month web banner under “gifts that last for hikers” on Patagonia.com.